First Trip to Hills Peak

Hills Peak looms large above the wetland to the west.

Back in the fall of 2007, I checked out Big Swamp, a large wetland just south of the line between Lane and Douglas counties. This is before the Western Cascades were available in high resolution on Google Earth, so I wasn’t really sure where the good (boggy) part of the swamp was. After my hike, I drove up Big Swamp Road 2153, hoping to get a good look down on the swamp (I did). I continued on to see what was up the road and found a large wetland right next to the road. Above it loomed the rocky face of Hills Peak. I had no time to check it out that day but decided it was a place I had to get to. I had planned to do it late last summer, but the raging Tumblebug fire just to the west cancelled those plans.

Castilleja suksdorfii can be distinguished from the common C. miniata by the presence of at least some lobed leaves and far more green on the bracts of the inflorescence.

Finally yesterday (July 25), I planned a return trip, this time armed with good Google Earth photos of the area, which includes several other wetlands. The road was a piece of cake. At this point in the summer, I’m really sick of dodging rocks and potholes, so a gravel road in good condition is a big relief. The weather report said a slight chance of thunderstorms in the area, and indeed clouds did build up during the day, plus it was warm, so I planned to head straight up to the top of Hills Peak first. The sight of some gorgeous scarlet red paintbrush in the wet ditch forced me to make one quick stop on the way up. The color didn’t betray me, they were indeed Castilleja suksdorfii, a fairly rare paintbrush that I had only seen farther north. Okay, make that two quick stops, as some butterflies nectaring on perfect Erigeron cascadensis caused me to jump out of the car again. Then there was the one to look down at the view…. No wonder I always run out of time!

When I reached the south end of the Hills Peak ridge (a half mile walk down an old road off of 2153), I was surprised to find a picnic table and a small deck. How civilized to be able to eat my lunch at a table. I hadn’t realized this was an old lookout site (see the Fire Lookout website for a photo). The 1/3 of a mile long ridge looked a lot more up and down from here. I suspect I could have followed it (safely) all the way to the north end, but it would take a lot of scrambling up and down rocks and thinking about each step. Many of the plants were already finished, and I wanted to spend time in the wetlands, so I only went about a quarter of the way. There were still blooming Eriogonum compositum and umbellatum attracting a lot of butterflies and one very pretty patch of Castilleja pruinosa that I accidentally scared a hummingbird away from. Some silvery clumps of Luina hypoleuca wouldn’t be blooming for another few weeks at least. I think I’ll plan a return trip earlier in the season for some future year.

Diamond Peak can be seen looking north along the bumpy ridge of Hills Peak. Castilleja pruinosa blooms in the foreground.

Fading flowers on the two very different forms of primrose monkeyflower (Mimulus primuloides)

Getting to the wetlands just west of Hills Peak turned out to be very easy. There is a larger one about 250 yards south of the road through open forest. A smaller one is just downstream and even closer on the other side of the road. I had seen lots of white dots from up on the ridge. They turned out to be bistort. There was also a lot of Dodecatheon jeffreyi still hanging on. Just starting was the adorable ground-covering Mimulus primuloides. In the past, I’ve noticed two very different forms of this, something not clearly described in the floras. Some are very small with tiny 1/4″ flowers and leaves covered with long,  perpendicular, sparkling hairs. The rosettes are somewhat flat. The other form is considerably larger—its flowers are almost 3 times larger—and has upright, glabrous leaves. Usually I see one form or the other, but here they were mingled together. I’ve never noticed any in-between forms, and the two forms seem consistent in the 20 or so places where I’ve seen it. At least in the Western Cascades, I wouldn’t call it a variable species, rather one with two distinct forms. Not being a trained botanist, I’m not sure if this qualifies as a variety. I look forward to seeing how this is handled in the Flora of North America treatment, yet to be published.

The "trunks" of Pedicularis attollens are much smaller than those of P. groenlandica.

At the upper wetland, I had noticed the small size of a number of Pedicularis in bud but didn’t give it much thought. In the lower wetland, I found one with 2 open flowers. These seemed too small for the common elephant’s head (P. groenlandica). Could it be…? Before allowing myself to finish the thought, I went searching for more in bloom. Along the west side of the little wetland, there were a dozen or more coming into bloom. Yes, they were little elephant’s head (P. attollens), a species I’d only seen twice before, and never in the Western Cascades. Of course, I was quite far east—spitting distance from the High Cascades—one of the reasons I thought this might be an interesting spot. The OFP Atlas shows it at Indigo Lake, a little less than 5 miles east. Still, I was pretty excited. There were none of the larger elephant’s head in either of these wetlands, but the lowest wetland, a mile away to the east of Hills Peak, had many in fading bloom and none of the smaller species. Perhaps this was because, at just under 5000′, it is 300′ lower in elevation.

Greenish blue enjoying a sip of long-stalked clover (Trifolium longipes)

It was a good day for butterflies, and I saw a number of different species everywhere I went: variable and northern or Hoffman’s checkerspots; silvery, greenish, and acmon blues; spring azures; a hedgerow hairstreak; some sort of very pale sulphur; a faded California tortoiseshell; and at least one parnassian. The caterpillars of greenish blues eat clover, and the adults seem to enjoy nectaring on it, too. All the wetlands had plenty of Trifolium longipes, the most common perennial clover in the Western Cascades. In the smallest wetland, a number of greenish blues were flitting about, some enjoying the dense white pompons of bistort, others drinking from the clover. Fortunately, some of them stayed still long enough for a photograph. Unfortunately, butterflies weren’t the only insects flying around. There were also lots of mosquitoes, especially at the end of the day. I guess everything can’t go perfectly.

One Response to “First Trip to Hills Peak”

  • Kris Kennedy:

    Tanya, I recently discovered your site and I must say I’m impressed by your knowledge of plants/nature. Like you, I am fascinated by the beauty and intricacies of wildlife and wild places. I love just about everything in nature (except mosquitoes and biting flies) and I have a special interest in photographing and studying butterflies (no collecting), which as you know relates to an interest in plants.

    Your blog stories remind me of many of my own trips, and the way you write them makes me feel as though I’m there. I really enjoy reading your blog.

    I’m very curious about the white Penstemon rupicola you recently saw. I have found white versions (and other color aberrations) of several plants that aren’t supposed to be white but never any white P. rupicola. In a couple of weeks or so I’ll be checking on some white and *white-ish* gentians that I have been watching for a few years in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. They are really unusual and beautiful.

    I have a soft spot for Pikas too. I love those little buggers. :)

    Kris
    Vancouver, Washington

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